Focus on Employee Mental Health — Everything Else is Secondary
As topics about the future of work continue to dominate the media, the conversations often revolve around technological advancement, work-from-home, a post-pandemic future, or other similar big-picture issues. When we zoom into a workplace, we find adaptable people who can learn the new skills necessary to succeed.
What we’ve failed to focus on enough is how to give individual employees the tools they need to thrive. One such tool is understanding that CEOs must foster solutions for the changing workforce. Priorities are shifting toward the expectation that a workplace not only provides a steady paycheck, but fosters belonging and cultivates joy.
An emphasis on mental health, especially in the wake of a global pandemic, is likely to be the driving force of success for companies this decade. This starts with empathy at the executive level. CEOs, CTOs, and other executives need to accept that optimizing wellbeing is part of an employers’ responsibility.
Historically, employees were expected to show up to work and check out of their personal lives. Struggling or celebrating at a personal level was expected to be exactly that: personal. Discussing the impact of world events, political atmosphere, or how the company fits into the larger conversation was considered taboo and unprofessional.
The COVID-19 pandemic, social justice movements, and shifting expectations by Gen Z and Millennials replacing their older counterparts has showcased the impossibility of separating mental wellness into “personal” and “work”. The increasing homogenization of work and life into “work-life balance” continues to erode the clarity of that line. The impact of working from home has turned millions of homes into part-time offices, further blurring that line. 2020 highlighted for many Americans what marginalized communities have always known – that compartmentalizing and assimilating into workplaces for the sake of politeness is stressful and demoralizing. The collective trauma of COVID-19 gave the majority of the American workforce an experience so disruptive of the status quo that companies are being forced to acknowledge at a structural level that mental health and wellbeing do not exist in a void.
Evolving Company Culture
The responsibility is on those in power to make a shift at the executive level of a company in order to accommodate for the societal shift toward improving employee mental health. With 68% of Millennials and 81% of Gen Zers having left jobs for mental health reasons, enacting culture change is crucial for longevity. Evolving a company culture takes intentionality, consistency, and sustained effort. It should be treated as any professional undertaking by hiring the right professionals, defining what success looks like, building buy-in, being honest about progress, and ensuring viability. Too often the people-projects get shelved for financial priorities. Creating a workplace that attracts, retains, and motivates top talent is key. The past two years have shown us that all work comes to a halt when the right people for the job are missing or overtaxed.
We find that most leaders implement change only when relationships are hard and trust is lost. It is critical that leaders are thinking about culture before challenging times. No one wants to bond with their team or give anyone the benefit of the doubt when things are already bad. When leaders invest in their employees, develop a culture of care, and build policies and expectations that accept the inevitability of challenging times, that trust allows conflict (big or small) to be dealt with with empathy, innovation, and a solution-mindset rather than losing a heck of a lot of employees.
In an increasingly digital world, we can’t sit back and wait for everything to fall into place. So how can CEOs proactively enact culture change? Actively encourage and participate in the culture you wish to cultivate.
A Foundation of Trust
As with any relationship, trust must be earned. For every good intention behind “our workplace is a family” there are employees who have flashbacks to jobs that weaponize the phrase to expect work outside of the workday—including socializing with colleagues—or other unfair expectations. Family is not universally synonymous with support. Even in our most transactional relationships, we all feel better when we’re treated with dignity, clarity, and consistency. Building trust by keeping expectations clear, sticking to your word, and elevating your employees/teammates where they need it.
Walking the Walk
It isn’t enough to pay lip service to your company’s goals around mental health and wellness, it’s up to you to set a proper example! Model the desired approach and behavior. If you’re posting work items in Slack at 8:30pm, you’re subconsciously creating the expectation that, hey, maybe others should too! Conversely, when employees see leadership taking adequate breaks, participating in team bonding or workshops, relaxing on a lunch break, or utilizing the resources and benefits offered by the company, they feel more empowered to participate themselves.
Professor Brian Sutton-Smith, a developmental psychologist who studied humans and why we play, said, “The opposite of play is not work; it is depression.” At Kingmakers, we encourage business leaders to make time for play for the sake of play. There’s a special balance in facilitating an environment that feels exclusively playful and honors the tangible benefits of employee engagement. Play, especially facilitated board gameplay experiences that offer a range of collaboration and competition, allows employees to know one another more intimately, create new connections, and recognize each others’ approaches to problem-solving. Maybe you’ll learn how a teammate develops strategy, what cultural references resonate with them, or what defines their humor. Play is a low stakes way for us to share who we are and how we see the world, and those insights can be so useful for developing healthy and humanized working relationships.
The Importance of Everyday Action
Upper management must recognize that a culture that supports mental health is a long-term investment. Better mental health results in the business benefits of lower turnover, higher morale, and a lasting company culture that embraces a sense of belonging and natural camaraderie. Prioritizing wellness when business is good, and when it’s not, shows your employees that it’s not a gimmick—it’s a core value. Perhaps even more important is the intangible feeling of being taken care of and respected through the sum of micro-decisions, conversation, and actions you take throughout your organization in the day-to-day.
Evolving Company Culture
Quite often, leaders want to support employees in workplace culture change by seeking their perspectives. That intention is valid and important; however, it is critical when requesting input across all organizational hierarchy to ensure there is openness and willingness to listen and enact that feedback at all levels too, particularly at the top. Make sure you have a plan in place to implement input before surveying.
Authenticity in your approach matters; if you’re not willing to be a part of the company culture you envision, there’s nothing there worth cultivating. The workplace as we know it has fundamentally changed from what it was even five years ago, but that’s not a new experience. Workplaces have been in flux forever, driven by changing cultural, interpersonal, and technological standards. The Gen Z employees who weren’t part of your workplace culture 10 years ago have different priorities than the Millennials and Gen Xers before them. An increasingly diverse workforce brings new perspectives and ideas to the table. Where do you as a leader in your company fit in? Listen to and act upon what employees are asking for. A proactive approach to mental health and wellness ensures your workplace is not just transactional, but a healthy level of personal.
Written by Malika Jacobs, the founder and CEO of Kingmakers.
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